Egypt’s military ruler urges massive voter turnout as nation goes to polls amid turmoil

Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi (2nd L) the head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) with the chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces Sami Anan, speaks with journalist at the Defense Ministry in Cairo Nov. 27, 2011. (Reuters)

Egypt’s military ruler warned of “extremely grave” consequences if the turbulent nation does not pull through its current crisis and urged voters to turn out for landmark parliamentary elections starting Monday.

Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi claimed “foreign hands” were behind the latest wave of unrest, an assertion similar to those made by Hosni Mubarak in his final days in power before he was ousted in a popular uprising in February. Tantawi was Mubarak’s defense minister for 20 years.

In comments carried by the nation’s official news agency, Tantawi rejected calls for him and other generals on the ruling military council he heads to immediately step down.

The parliamentary election that gets under way on Monday and Tuesday is the first step in a transfer to civilian rule, promised by the ruling army council that replaced Mubarak.

The course of transformation in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, will reverberate across a region where a new generation demanding democratic change has risen up against autocratic governments that have ruled for decades.

Some Egyptians yearn for stability after a week of bloodshed that has killed 42 people and wounded more than 2,000, preferring for now to let the generals run a nation whose prolonged political turmoil has thrust the economy deeper into crisis.

But the demonstrators gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square want the council to make way for a civilian interim administration immediately. They reject its promise to complete the handover by July and its choice of 78-year-old Kamal Ganzouri to form the next cabinet.

Activists had called for a mass rally to pile pressure on the generals, and by mid-afternoon there were thousands in the square, hub of the unrest that toppled Mubarak.

The military took the reins of power when Mubarak was ousted. But it has come under intense criticism for most of the past nine months for its failure to restore security, stop the rapid worsening of the economy or introduce the far-reaching reforms called for by the youth groups behind Mubarak’s fall and the ongoing protest movement.

Tantawi said the military will follow through with its somewhat vague road map for handing over power. The ruling council never set a precise date for transferring authority to an elected civilian administration, only pledging that presidential elections - the last step in the handover process - will be held before the end of June, 2012.

“We will not allow troublemakers to meddle in the elections,” he said. “Egypt is at a crossroads - either we succeed politically, economically and socially or the consequences will be extremely grave and we will not allow that.”

Tantawi also accused foreign powers he did not name of meddling in Egypt’s affairs.

“None of this would have happened if there were no foreign hands,” he said. “We will not allow a small minority of people who don’t understand to harm Egypt’s stability,” he said, apparently alluding to the protesters in Tahrir, epicenter of the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak.

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